By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The kids in our neighborhood had been leaving trash in the alley behind our house. I say kids, but I knew it was boys. I’d seen them prowling around the alley like they owned it. When I went out there in the morning, I found food wrappers and plastic forks strewn all over as if a raccoon had ransacked a family barbecue.
I told my husband I was worried about them. The boys. Where were their parents? Did they not have food at home?
I also told my husband I’d seen an empty box of fancy chocolates lying on the curb out front. He and I had an open relationship in that I would tell him about every piece of trash I saw and he wouldn’t judge me for it.
That’s a new one, my husband said, meaning I’d never pointed out an empty chocolate box to him before. So he had been paying attention.
I told him I pictured a group of heartbroken girls walking the streets at night, sobbing and eating truffles, and when they’d finished they’d been rightly furious that there were no more chocolates and had thrown the box on the ground and kicked it to the curb as if it were some boy. Boys! I said to my husband, but I hoped he knew I didn’t see him like that anymore, most of the time.
The bastards, my husband said, kissing my forehead.
After that, he bought me a box of chocolates, and I tried not to think of what women say about men who buy you flowers and chocolates for no reason: that they’re guilty of something. Maybe he thought I’d mentioned the chocolate because it had been so long since he’d bought me any and he knew I was attempting a kind of adulthood now in which I wouldn’t cry or get angry when the chocolates were all gone, and that I would dispose of the box responsibly and not keep it for some sort of witchcraft.
I ate one chocolate and left the rest on the curb for the girls. In my fantasy the girls were now buying their own chocolates, because they were more secure than my generation and were taking the power back. If they wanted fancy chocolates, they would buy them, not wait for some boy to get them the wrong kind.
That night my husband asked if he could have a chocolate, which made me think that maybe he had just wanted some chocolate himself, and that there was no guilt, no infidelity to conceal or wife to placate, just his own growling belly. I told him I had eaten them all, and he rightly looked concerned and closely watched what I consumed after that, because I had told him how I’d once tried to be bulimic, but I’d discovered it isn’t as easy as they make out. I’d found retching over a toilet bowl to be something I didn’t really want to do. Maybe if the floor had been cleaner, the toilet bowl less shit-stained, my fingers longer . . . all those what-ifs. In return he had told me how he’d tried playing soccer once, but, likewise, it hadn’t been something he wanted to explore.
The chocolates were gone the next morning. The box, too. I hadn’t watched from the window to see the girls take them, because I didn’t want to raise further suspicion in my husband, who was probably already questioning his decision ever to live with me.
He held my hand more in the days that followed, maybe worried that I had gone back to reliving my youth over the toilet bowl.
I bought more chocolates. Fancier ones this time, in a silky heart-shaped box with a ribbon. I wanted my girls to have something special. I left it on the curb along with my well-thumbed copy of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman underneath. I worried this might be too direct, but I feared the follow-up, How to Build a Girl, was too patronizing. I imagined the girls lying in the long grass somewhere with their heads in each other’s laps, reading passages aloud to each other, taking small bites from the chocolates and then putting them back, like you should always do, to check which ones are poisoned. Of course, there wasn’t any grass nearby that was safe to lounge in unless you wanted to lie on dog shit or a needle. They were more likely sitting on a park bench somewhere, using the book cover to snort drugs. But I didn’t really think they were doing drugs any more than I thought they would really read the book. Reading wasn’t cool. Who was I kidding? Harry Potter and those mopey vampires were gone from the bestseller lists. Those wizards and vampires probably had sensible jobs in the city now, and mortgages, and gym memberships — the fate that comes for us all.
I had wanted to leave the girls some books by Judy Blume, too, because she had gotten me through some tough times, but I knew they were past that stage already. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret probably didn’t have a place in teenage girls’ lives the way it used to. Or maybe they still liked Judy Blume but wouldn’t admit it to each other, and now sulky vampires and dystopian divas were passé, so I had no idea what they were into.
I’d pretended I was Margaret once, and I’d talked to God, and he’d said he knew who I was and he also knew I didn’t really believe in him, so he’d been ignoring me, when all I ever wanted was to be seen. I doubted girls today would know who Margaret was — or God, for that matter, unless God tweeted, which he may well do. I wasn’t in that world, their world. Although they were clearly getting out of the house, the girls. So I hadn’t lost all hope. Maybe if Judy Blume started tweeting, I thought, I would, too. This made me feel sad and old, and I wondered why I was concerning myself with these girls at all, and then I realized it was because I felt sad and old, and I remembered when I had roamed the streets at night looking for something, anything, to do, and I would have happily eaten garbage candy and read discarded novels if it would have helped me feel less alone, because I had felt alone, even with my friends beside me, all of us crying over boys because it was what you did, though I don’t think I really cared about any of them. The boys, that is. I cared about the books and the girls fiercely. That is, until I met my husband, who kept me in chocolates and books and made me feel less alone in the world and gave me a reason to stay inside at night. Though I did sometimes still feel the need to escape after dark, it was usually just for emergency hummus.
The next morning I didn’t see the heart-shaped chocolate box or the book anywhere. I took this as a good sign.
That evening there was a knock at the door.
I made my husband go answer it, like I always did. I told myself I wanted him to feel like a man, but really it was shyness on my part, and laziness.
It’s a woman from down the street, he said when he came back into the living room. She says she wants to talk to you. . . . Well, she said she wanted to speak to my wife.
Why didn’t you just say I was out or ask what it’s concerning? I said.
Because I’m clearly useless, he said.
I can hear you, the woman at the front door said.
I dragged myself from the sofa and went to the door, but not without giving my incompetent husband the stink eye. I thought we had an unwritten agreement that one of his jobs was to save me from such women.
Hi, sorry, I said. I was about to tell a lie about how I had been sleeping or nursing a sick child when the woman went on a rant about how I shouldn’t be giving other people’s children reading material and it was not my place to interfere in their schooling and they had books at home and if her daughter showed any interest in reading, they would pick out some suitable books together.
Too tired from nursing the imaginary sick child to argue, I just smiled and said, Of course, that it had been a mistake, that I’d meant the book for the trash, and that I would be more careful where I left my dangerous feminist reading material in the future.
The neighbor didn’t seem to have any more time to waste on me, thank God, because she left. I assume she had a casserole in the oven or some other domestic nonsense to attend to — things I never got around to.
My husband had heard the whole conversation. Instead of asking what was wrong with me, like a normal person would, he just said, Well, it was a long shot. And that was why I’d married him.
He saw the intention behind my unorthodox methods. He saw through the randomness of my actions to the creamy caramel center.
You’re not going to stop, though, are you? he said, knowing I was now more intent on corrupting/saving this woman’s daughter. We agreed that her coming over here to complain was just poor mothering.
As long as I don’t come home to a house full of teenage girls all reading quietly, I don’t care what you do, he joked, and my heart swelled with love for him.
After that, I tried to forget about the girls, I really did, but they were out there somewhere, reading God knows what or not reading at all. And what were they eating besides candy? I couldn’t sleep from worry.
My husband tried to comfort me by saying it would be cold soon, and they would have to go indoors, the girls and the boys both, but this didn’t comfort me. I didn’t want them indoors where I couldn’t see them.
Anyone else would have said this was my odd way of brooding; that it was time for me to stop worrying about children in the street and have some children of my own to worry about.
Then I ran into that upset mother in the grocery store, her daughter sulking behind her. I just smiled and walked past them, but the mother hissed, I’ll tell everyone you touched my daughter.
She only touched me with her backpack, the daughter said, rolling her eyes at her mother.
I had accidentally bumped the girl with my backpack once, but I thought it best not to bring that up, in case I would be charged with assault and battery in addition to whatever this woman was implying.
I noticed no one was bothered that I was giving the girls chocolates. I was pretty sure that if I were a middle-aged man giving them chocolates, it would be a different story. Or maybe no one dared mention what the girls were or weren’t eating because of how things were with girls and how delicately you had to tiptoe around issues of food so as not to trigger any possible disorders.
But it seemed reading was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a whole other story. It seemed that reading books you found in the trash wasn’t OK.
It was only one time, I said to myself — though just saying that also made me feel like a sex offender.
Just one time I had done something nice. Just one time I had left some forlorn teenage girls an offering of chocolate and words, and suddenly I was the local pedophile. I hadn’t left them Fifty Shades of Grey.
But I needn’t have worried. The girls had it handled. As girls do.
A few nights later my husband stood at the window.
Is this something to do with you? he said.
A group of girls stood in front of our house, all giggling and shoving each other.
We could hear them saying, You go, and, No, you go, and, It was your idea.
We waited to see who would go, whose idea all this was.
A tall girl in a beanie eventually got pushed forward, and she reluctantly shuffled up to our door, left something on the mat, then scurried off.
The other girls had already left, and we watched her run after them, all of them laughing and whooping.
If one of those girls has left a burning bag of shit on our doorstep, my husband said, I am not dealing with it.
I was expecting something more elaborate: a dead cat, a boy’s head.
What they had left was a book and a granola bar. The book was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. The granola bar was caramel almond.
You see? I needn’t have worried.
I took my gifts inside and hugged them to my chest — just a little. My husband was watching, and I didn’t want him to think I was totally out of control.
Please don’t start some sort of book club with them, he pleaded.
I don’t need to, I said, handing him the granola bar.
In my head that book club had already been going for weeks. I was planning to leave a quiche the next time. The girls needed sustenance.